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5 Leadership Lessons from President Eisenhower

Posted on September 16, 2020 at 8:45 PM

A new memorial opens this week in Washington DC to honor the memory of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States and the commanding general for the Allies in the European theater of World War II. There have been 45 presidents of the United States and Eisenhower will be just the fifth to be celebrated with a federal memorial or monument in Washington DC proper. Eisenhower joins an elite club - Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt - with that distinction.


Here are five lessons from Eisenhower's remarkable life and career that can help leaders in any area today.

1 - He Overcame Personal Tragedies - At about age 12, Eisenhower was involved in an accident that resulted in his four year old brother losing an eye. Eisenhower failed to notice his toddler brother reaching for a knife he had just used. Eisenhower felt remorse for the rest of his life. Eisenhower had to overcome an injury of his own as a high school freshman. He suffered a leg injury that became infected, and his doctor deemed it life-threatening and recommending amputation. Eisenhower refused and he recovered. Finally, as an adult, Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, lost their first son to Scarlett Fever at the age of three in 1921. Eisenhower would call his son's death "the most shattering moment of their lives, one that almost destroyed their marriage"


LEADERSHIP LESSON -> The resilience Eisenhower learned as a child and young father served him well as a general and president, where he had to overcome many crises.


2 - He Benefitted from a Great Peer Group - Eisenhower went to college at West Point (the United States Military Academy), graduating in 1915. His class is called "the class the stars fell on" because 59 of the 164 graduates (36 percent) that year ended up making the rank of general, more than any other class in West Point's history. Eisenhower graduated in the middle of his class. The success of his classmates probably spurred and encouraged Eisenhower to pursue success in his own career. Many of his classmates would end up reporting to him after he became a general.


LEADERSHIP LESSON -> Surround yourself with A-Team players. They will help you set high expectations for yourself. They will also give you a network of valuable allies to help you.


3 - He Was a Patient Late Bloomer - Eisenhower was disappointed that he had not had a chance, like many of his peers, to get combat experience in World War I, which was seen as a fast track to promotion. Because the US Army shrank after World War I, many officers in Eisenhower's peer group saw little chance for promotion. Eisenhower was "stuck" at the rank of Major for over 12 years. Eisenhower was limited to being a staffer to generals for many of these years, but some of the generals he served were legends - including Douglas McArthur, George Marshall, and John Pershing. The lessons he learned from these generals must have been valuable training for when he would become a general himself. His patience paid off. After he finally got promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1936, Eisenhower's trajectory was fast, making Colonel five years later, and then one-star general just months later on the eve of the US entry into World War II.


LEADERSHIP LESSON -> Focus less on the speed of your climb up the corporate ladder, and focus more on the lessons you can learn along the way that will help you when you get to the top.


4 - He Embraced Responsibility - Eisenhower made it very clear that he took all responsibility for the success or failure of the actions under his command. For example, he crafted the following statement to be released if the D-Day invasion of Normandy had been repulsed by the Germans - "Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone." Thankfully, he never had to issue that statement.


LEADERSHIP LESSON -> Leaders know they personally have the ultimate responsibility for the performance of their teams. They use that as a self-motivational tool to manage the risk of everything under their command. They provide air cover for their subordinates by taking responsibility for the strategies those subordinates were attempting to execute.


5 - He Kept Hobbies to Relax - Eisenhower made time to pursue his hobbies, even in his pressure-filled days as a general and president. As a young officer, he learned to fly a plane. His passion for golf in his later life was well-known, and he even had a putting green installed at the White House. He loved playing cards, especially bridge. He even played bridge as a stress outlet during the days leading up to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Just before he ran for president, he picked up oil painting as a new hobby and used that to relax too. As a long-time smoker with numerous health problems, these relaxation outlets were probably encouraged by his doctors. He was smart enough to listen to their orders.


LEADERSHIP LESSON -> Carve out time to pursue things you enjoy outside of work. They will help you relax, offload stress, and stimulate creativity that can make you a better leader at work.


Eisenhower left a huge legacy as a soldier and president. Historians typically rank him as one of the best presidents in history. His path to that legacy provides valuable lessons for leaders today.

Categories: Crisis Management, People Leadership